Muscogee County School Board debates role in hiring

What normally prompts little or no discussion turned into a debate of more than 25 minutes during the Muscogee County School Board's work session Monday evening.

The agenda item asks for approval of superintendent David Lewis' recommendation to hire Fulton County Board of Education budget analyst Michi Billings as Muscogee's new senior budget director. But the disagreement was mainly about the board's role in hiring any administrator at such a level of responsibility.

District 8 representative Frank Myers, whose 2014 campaign called for more accountability and transparency in the school system, asked whether board members could meet Billings before they vote during the Jan. 19 meeting. Lewis said that won't happen, and Myers wondered aloud, "So we just take a shot in the dark and rubber-stamp this recommendation? The idea that we're not allowed to meet a person who will be a director is unacceptable."

Myers asked District 4 representative Naomi Buckner, who sits next to him at the board table, whether she would hire somebody to clean her house without first meeting the applicant.

"I'm not supposed to dilly-dally in the personnel of the school district," Buckner replied. "We have to act on the information that they present to us."

Myers countered, "I object to the characterization that a vote by a school board member is a dilly-dally. That is our obligation. Either you understand your function as a board member or you don't."

Lewis interjected, "The function of the superintendent is to make recommendations and to select personnel. It's pretty clear by policy and by way of accreditation, which governs all of our schools in terms of the defined role of the chief executive officer and the board. Certainly, you can look at the resume and that kind of thing, but that is the recommendation. Then it's up to the board to vote it up or vote it down, based on the information provided."

Myers told Lewis, "It is your job to recommend, but it's not your job to select. If the board doesn't use independent judgment and get all the facts, the people aren't being represented. That's why it matters.

" If you go with the superintendent's version of events, there is absolutely zero accountability -- except, if you don't like what he's doing, you fire him, and I don't think that's what people want to happen, at least not now. And I'm sick and tired being talked to about what the function of the board is, because I can read, and I understand what words mean, and it's our responsibility as a board to vote your recommendation up or down."

Board vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 agreed with Myers' final statement but disagreed with the interpretation.

"We have codes of ethics that are state statutes," she said. " The only we person that we interview, that we hire, that we select, is the superintendent."

Myers persisted.

"The idea that there is some code of ethics that says we're prohibited from interviewing somebody is the biggest load of bull that I've heard since I've been on the school board, and that means a lot," he said. "That is nuts. We have an obligation to know who we're hiring, and we are doing the hiring as a board."

The two other members who joined the board in January 2015 after being elected in 2014 also questioned the administration about the recommendation.

Kia Chambers, the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative, requested a breakdown of how hiring the senior budget director will be funded after it has been vacant for a year. District 2 representative John Thomas asked MCSD chief financial officer Theresa Thornton, the senior budget director's supervisor, whether she was objective in her role on the selection panel despite having worked with Billings in Fulton County.

"Definitely," Thornton said.

The selection panel interviewed four applicants, Thornton said. Nobody mentioned how many of them were local candidates, but District 3 representative Athavia "A.J." Senior encouraged the administration to try to fill positions by promoting from within the system to boost morale.

Green turned the discussion back to the role of the board and quoted the code of ethics, which states that the board votes on personnel "only after receiving and considering the recommendation of the local superintendent." She added and directed her comment to Myers, "It's not something that's made up and a bunch of whatever the term you used."

Myers: "The law you read backs up my position."

Green: "You said you want to interview her."

Myers: "I'm sorry. Did you read something about prohibited from interviewing?"

Green: "It reads 'only.'"

Myers: "That there's some prohibition against a school board member interviewing a potential director in the school system, that is malarkey. I'm not going to vote for any more directors as a school board member if I am prohibited from interviewing that person. It's too important." Thomas tried to clarify the dispute.

"We're not asking to interview that director," he said. "We're asking to talk to the person who has been recommended, ask them some questions to get a feel for their background. We can do that before we vote and after (the superintendent's) recommendation. That's all he's asking to do."

Myers: "I've always said John Thomas is a lot smarter than I am. He's certainly a lot more articulate. That's exactly what I was trying to say. Thank you, John."

With that, board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 moved the work session to the next agenda item.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.